Can a scholarly field have theory without theorists?

I found this remark from sociologist Kieran Healy very interesting:

Theory within sociology is in a strange position. Normally, the core ideas of a field–its theories–are what hold it together. But there are no longer any theorists in sociology. There are theories (or things people call theories); there are theory courses…But since the late 1980s or early 1990s there has been no occupational position of “theorist” within American sociology. No-one gets a job as a theorist…As a consequence, many people are not sure what, from a disciplinary point of view, theory in sociology is supposed to be any more, or how it should be done…

Question: to what extent is the same true of ecology?

I ask about “extent” because clearly it’s not entirely true of ecology. There are definitely still ecologists who are employed as theorists. But are (m)any being hired as theorists? As opposed to, say, “modelers” or “quantitative ecologists”? “Modeling” is not the same as theory. And basically no N. American tenure-track faculty positions in ecology and allied fields are advertised for “theorists”. And if theory is what holds a field together, well, it’s not clear that there are any ideas that hold ecology together: see here and here (and contrast evolutionary biology).

So, you tell me: are we ecologists better off than sociologists on this front? Are we still sure what, from a disciplinary point of view, theory in ecology is supposed to be any more, and how it should be done?

17 thoughts on “Can a scholarly field have theory without theorists?

  1. I’d say that many, if not most, ecologists do theory even if they are not hired for theory positions. Such theory work would be mostly restricted to one’s area, which is related to the position for which the person was hired. I think there’s considerable freedom regarding what a person wants to do in ecology, so it’s likely that some people will tend to work more on theory and others on empirical on modelling approaches; but doing both is possible. I also have the impression that researchers tend to switch more to theory as they gain more experience and a deeper understanding of the field.

    I also think that conceptual reviews in general can be considered as theory, as they combine empirical data into some working framework.

    And there’s also some work on philosophy of science in ecology, for example this: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10539-013-9398-7

    But I wonder how many ecologists actually read these papers; until yesterday I had no idea that journals such as this exist.

    • “I’d say that many, if not most, ecologists do theory even if they are not hired for theory positions.”

      That’s the situation in sociology according to Kieran Healy. The question is whether that’s fine, or a problem, or what. It’s not the situation in some other fields like particle physics, where there’s a division of labor between theoreticians and experimentalists.

      • “It’s not the situation in some other fields like particle physics, where there’s a division of labor between theoreticians and experimentalists.”

        Do you see this a desirable? In the initial quote Kieran says sociologists do not know what theory is supposed to be or how it should be done, but that does not seem to be a problem for ecologists. I can’t say whether we have more or less theory now than decades ago but there is still plenty coming out (I would guess more in absolute terms but less as a fraction of the discipline).

      • Good question–in an ideal world, is there a division of labor between theorists and empiricists? What are the pluses and minuses of having such a division of labor?

    • In my area of physiological/functional/evolutionary ecology, the theory that I see that is generated by non-theoreticians is largely qualitative, vague and could generate an infinite number of quantitative “tests” (some mutually contradictory). I generally don’t find this useful (because it is too easy to collect data or do experiments that “support” the theory) until someone comes along and turns it into a quantitive model.

      • which doesn’t answer the question. I think a field can learn a lot about the world with good, rigorous, probing experiments and without much theory, or at least without much of the grand, unifying theory that occurs in say Physics. Cell/molecular biology for example. You know much more about economics than I do but it is my understanding that macroeconomics has a large body of very famous theory but I’m not sure that this theory has been rigorously tested in any way and often fails to produce expected results in the messy real world.

  2. In my opinion, if most ecologists do some theory, it’s in the qualitative, vague sense that Jeffrey asserts. I’m OK in general with taking a fairly inclusive view of what theory is in ecology, but I definitely agree that until an idea is expressed in a quantitative model it’s likely to be too fuzzy/ambiguous for strong tests. And I think it’s a minority of ecologists who are doing the really rigorous mathematical stuff.

    I think in some senses it’s desirable that ecologists often do some mix of theory and empirical work. I think this can make the connection between the real world and ecological theory stronger, but I also think that some division of labor is beneficial, because being really good at either theory or empiricism is HARD. There are aspects of those skillsets that are distinct, so it’s a somewhat small minority who can be both really good at generating new ideas and expressing them mathematically, and at the same time really good at testing and applying those ideas empirically.

    @Jeremy, how do you distinguish between modeling and doing theory? I ask because in my opinion a lot of what ecology is interested in right now deals with nonlinearities, randomness, and systems that aren’t at equilibrium, and the difficulty to impossibility of dealing with these things analytically at least means using simulation. Certainly some models are more general, and thus could be considered more theoretical, and some models are very system-specific, but I’m not sure I see a clear bright line there. Is it partly researcher intent?

  3. “Are we still sure what, from a disciplinary point of view, theory in ecology is supposed to be any more..?”. Were we ever sure? The question implies we were.

    I’m still fuzzy on the definition of theory (even after skimming the old post). The common usage among ecologists comes close to treating modeling and theory as synonyms. If results look like model predictions, people say they were “consistent with theory”, which seems like a way to make the result seem grander than it really is. My sense is that people agree that’s not quite right. Anyway…

    …if we go with “trying to discover or derive general principles or laws” (old post), can you even do that as a full time job? We can always come up with a new empirical study to do or a new model to explore (almost always a twist on an existing model), but thoughts on general principles either come or they don’t. I guess what I’m saying is that really smart people could ponder possible general ecological principles all day every day, and not come up with much. Notice that when people list “good” existing theories, the list is always really short.

    So, we produce lots of models and data. Sometimes people write down models they hope might be general (= theories), and we soon discover that modifying the simplifying assumptions matter a lot, not a little. And from the other direction, I think many people ponder the big smorgasbord of models and data as much as anyone ever did to see if general principles emerge. It just doesn’t happen often!

    • Hi Mark; I am with you, except I think there definately are general principles to be discovered. You do too, really.[ see your recent book].
      Ecologists mean many things by the terms theory & model; and reading books like the’ THE THEORY OF ECOLOGY’ [edited by Scheiner&Willig] really wont clear up much. But the book has math development of many interesting ecological ideas.
      Heck, the greatest construction in modern particle physics is called the STANDARD MODEL.
      A question for Jeremy: in the 0ld theory/model post you took positive note of the newly published paper…https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/64/8/701/2754269
      on theory in ecology, and indicated a commentary on it might be forthcoming? I don’t recall if you ever did one;I think not, but am unsure. The authors delve more deeply into what theory ought to do, and present examples . (Three of the examples they like are areas I contributed- to, so naturally I like the paper.)

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